Sunday, June 11, 2017

Long distance coaches should carry bikes

A couple of hears ago I was in Penn Station and heard an announcement about bustitution due to track work. The announcer informed us that the buses would not be able to accept bikes. Just the day before I had been talking with some people about cycling in Montreal. I haven't had a chance to experience it, because I haven't been there since before they rolled out the Bixi bike share. Years ago I had planned to bring my bike there on a visit, but there was bustitution and Amtrak informed me I wouldn't be allowed to take the bike on the substitute buses.

In many small cities, government-run local buses are equipped with a front rack that can hold two or three bicycles. But the policy of long distance, usually private, coach operators (at least in North America) is typically that they will only allow bikes to be stored in the cargo bins if they are in boxes, with the handlebars removed. Of course, it is very difficult for a bicycle rider to carry a box large enough to hold the bike, and removing and reattaching handlebars requires time, skill and specialized tools.

Why do they do this? It smells to me of that toxic combination of elitism and liability worries that makes it painful to interact with American corporations. The owners and executives of the coach companies don't take their own buses, and they don't ride bikes. They don't want to take bikes on the coaches: they take up a lot of space, it's time-consuming for the drivers, and they're afraid of being sued if the bikes get broken. Their lawyers said something about liability, so they made a rule: no bikes.

If we could get long distance coaches to accept bicycles in a convenient way, this could easily be used to extend the coach network, with a measurable benefit to the lives of people who don't own cars. When I was a teenager, I was essentially cut off from all the jobs at the local mall because it was five miles from the nearest coach station. The roads from the bus station to the mall were relatively friendly to bike riders, but the roads from my town to the bus station were not. This would also encourage people to take a coach for tourism.

I’ve seen a few blog posts by bike advocates in favor of racks on city buses, or space for bikes on trains. But I don’t recall ever seeing one in favor of convenient bike storage on long-distance coaches. Do you know any coach operators that carry bikes conveniently? Was there anything that overcame their objections and persuaded them to do this?


alai said...

Shoot. I was going to recommend CAShuttleBus, which went SF-LA and let you stow a bike for $5. The tickets were cheap and the stops were well-located. But it looks like they've stopped running. Damn.

Unknown said...

Letting cyclists do it "open slather" (as the ozzies say) would be a headache. Operationally, for the coach operator, the bikes would get tangled together, and just as often the one that was wanted would be on the bottom of the tangle. It would cost time, create delays, and also interfere with the side-business of package shipment.

But as a one-time cycle commuter (I now live on the same campus where I work in a college-subsidized apartment in Beijing), and sometime coach user, I can visualize what might work. A rack that is fitted to the luggage compartment, that slide out, and allows bikes to be put in & locked. It would be the whole length of the luggage compartment & either full or half the width.

Even if there is a bike rack usage charge, the bus company is giving up general purpose luggage / package delivery space for a facility with uncertain impact on ridership. A community with a strong bikeway network & relatively high ridership shares might generate a steady flow of additional business over the year, but not necessarily every day, and, of course, if it generates TOO much, it could overflow the rack capacity, leading to demands that "you HAVE to take my bike", and then the overflow bikes put you back to square one of bikes not fitting well either with general luggage OR other bikes in coach luggage compartments.

The other side of supporting cyclist / coach transfers is bike lockers at the coach station. This becomes more attractive when there is a sharebike system and/or an effective local public transport system at the destination, but it still extends the catchment for transport cyclists even if they will be "calling someone to pick them up" at the destination coach station.

Of course, today, the coach companies do not generally own the stations and/or stops that they use. Important stations are leased or provided as part of multi-mode transport facilities, the intermediate stops are often just a space in a parking lot in walking distance to a fast food franchise. So the provision of cycle lockers in areas with relatively high transport cycling use is not necessarily something the coach operator could do even if they wanted to.

This is an area where a subsidy to provide amenities would seem to be justified, irrespective of whether there is subsidy to the coach service (over and above the general motor vehicle system subsidies). For a small town with a coach station, the bike lockers would be something they can see to. For longer distance coach services, paying a subsidy to ensure there are are bike racks in the luggage compartments would seem to be rather a state or federal level task, given the free rider issues with a local community attempting that for an intercity coach.

However, where a coach is providing a regional transport service, connecting to a larger urban area with a more elaborate public transport system, a subsidy for a luggage compartment bike rack in those regional coaches might be something a regional public transport authority could look at.

~ BruceMcF

chrismealy said...

I know people who use the Seattle/Portland BoltBus. They say it's great. The drivers usually have the bikes load first in a separate bay. The other bays never fill up so it's no problem.

Great Grandview said...

I think this is the what you're looking for: A number of transit agencies use these for commuter bus services using MCI coaches.

Brian said...

Vamoose between NY and DC allows bikes in the luggage area for no extra charge. I've done it in both directions and aside from having to wait until the other luggage is unloaded, it's pretty easy. On one occasion, I was asked to load the bike myself (either because of some unstated liability concern or just because the guy didn't want to mess with it), but I've never been met with any resistance about wanting to travel with it.

Capn Transit said...

Great comments, all! But Brian's comment actually reminded me of a time when a coach driver allowed me and a buddy to stow our bikes. We rode them through the city and out to the mall, but then we were worried that the driver on the way home would refuse us, so we wound up riding home over some relatively dangerous back roads.

I guess the thing is (and Bruce touches on this) that even if some drivers allow it, if you ride a bike to the station and the only convenient bus won't take your bike (for reasons of pique or policy) then you're stuck. A lot of riders just won't take that chance. Part of it is that the ability to only carry a few bikes exacerbates uncertainty if the coach service has low frequency or limited hours.

Unknown said...

Note that having bike lockers helps reduce the risk, even if there is, eg, some quota on how many bikes a coach has to carry, or if it is up to the driver whether to permit it.

Unknown said...

At Great Grandview ~ yes, for shorter luggage bays, something like that, and it could obviously stack taller for taller luggage bays.
~ BruceMcF